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Can a Global Virtual Team Work For a Startup?

Working far from your hometown, doing long-distance business trips and travelling the world are not exceptional in the business life any more. The global virtual team and/or virtual management is now part and parcel of almost every growing business. Sometimes it is necessary to have outsourced staff. Or, the manager has to travel frequently. But being on the move or far away should not be a barrier to keeping a great team together any more.

In truth, those willing to move around or work in long-distance teams are more likely to have the entrepreneurial spirit embedded in them. As a frequent traveller myself, I have picked up many skills and habits from travelling that led me to thrive in the start-up ecosystem: diligently searching for the cheapest options to solve our needs, accepting weird working hours, not being put off by tough means to reach a valuable end and being fascinated by the new and different instead of sceptical. I also discovered during the first year away that friends don’t just disappear – the right match is the right match, and time does not wear that down.

Your travel companions are like your team-mates

Being stranded in stations and airports around the world is not half bad if your companion is a good match. Your travel partner choice is a huge factor in the success and failure of a trip. The same is true for your company, and even more so in the narrow confines of a five-person start-up. The internet has transcended most borders and this means that many employees don’t have to physically be in the same room as you in order to make a successful business work. The Basecamp team did it. So can you. Embrace the technology that makes it possible!

Tools that make the global virtual team feel right at home

1. Skype: live video chats are fantastic for making it feel like your colleague is not actually all the way over in Hong Kong whilst you are in London. If the time difference can be managed, Skype is an awesome and free way of working with faraway teammates. The option of screen-sharing makes it super easy to show each other what you are working on and any issues that need discussing. The IM function and drag-n-drop file options also add to the usefulness of Skype as a tool for GVTs.

2. Facebook: not everyone likes sharing their FB details with colleagues in larger companies, but in start-ups it is pretty normal for the founders to be old friends. FB is able to foster very personal connections, by being one of the few social platforms where it is OK not to be strictly businesslike in all your dealings with the world. Keeping up with photos and statuses can maintain closeness over long distances which can be crucial to company culture.

3. Twitter: with Twitter, you will never be out of the loop for long. Quickly share informative links and banter in 140 characters. It’s one of my favourites to keep updated while I’m on the go, and here it is easy to maintain your visibility.

4. Project management tools (BasecampTrelloPodio): as long as the internet is good, your team can log in to any of these tools around the world and contribute. Sometimes it is easy to forget they are not nearby!

Terence Brake, author of “Leading Global Virtual Teams” (Industrial and Commercial Training, Vol. 38) gave these tips for virtual management:

  1. Be proactive
  2. Apply cultural intelligence
  3. Build swift trust
  4. Be a problem solver
  5. Stay person-centric
  6. Stay focussed
  7. Clarify who and what
  8. Establish predictability
  9. Communicate context
  10. Drive for precision

These are tips which all managers should learn. Is it possible that managing a global virtual team can make you a better manager than ever?

Benefits of GVTs:

  • The need to plan well: it’s quite difficult to manage global team with last-minute decisions and unscheduled meetings. Managing a GVT means improving time management for both management and employees.
  • Flexibility: as a GVT across time borders will not fit into a typical “9 – 5” scenario, the nice part is being able to fit your work more comfortably around your personal life. Sure, you have to work your eight or nine hours a day, but possibly in blocks of 3 hours or earlier/later than usual.
  • Less office distractions and time-wasting: camaraderie is great in the office but it often slows down productivity. Being around less people improves the time spent engaged with your work.
  • Trackable work: since many communications would happen online, through IM and PM tools, there is a more detailed record of ideas and decisions. Much is lost in spoken conversation. Online tools can plug this knowledge loss to an extent.

Challenges of GVTs:

  • Needing a good internet connection: there’s nothing more frustrating than a broken-voiced video conference. Outside of major cities and first-world countries internet coverage is drastically decreased or non-existent. A GVT needs to be in contact, and the internet is the cheapest method.
  • Costs of travel and communication: teams eventually need to meet up in order to re-invigorate the company culture. Meeting once or twice a year can be necessary to see if relationships are stable or if changes need to be implemented.
  • Leaving someone out: it can, and does, happen. Some time differences make a meeting of 100% of the staff impossible. Whilst it can be recorded and sent around, the input of those team members left out is lost.
  • Crisis management: GVTs require good planning and consistency. Spontaneous crises can be very difficult to solve across continents.

In start-ups today, investors often say they invest in the team, not the product. A great team can build a multitude of great things, and pivot flexibly. This is a team that can weather storms and adapt to market changes more adeptly. A single great product is a riskier investment. Your team is your greatest asset. With advancements in technology and improvements in communications infrastructure, distance will be less and less of an issue in managing global teams.

So if your awesome front-end developer decides he’s going to relocate in Buenos Aires, don’t be afraid. The team can go on!

Andrea Francis is the PR and research evangelist for Twoodo, the ultimate “one box to rule them all” online productivity tool. She is into events, marketing and PR with tech startups in Europe. Andy likes getting things done and makes an awesome homemade hamburger.

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